Challenges for the left: Reflections on the formation of the Socialist Alliance

August 31, 2021
Socialist Alliance has been campaigning for refugees' rights since it formed in 2001.

Socialist Alliance (SA), founded 20 years ago, was launched just before the beginning of a major shift to the right. This might appear to have been an unlikely time to begin a left regroupment project, but SA was founded after a number of developments with a different political trajectory.

Globally, the anti-corporate globalisation movement was on the rise. A part of that global rebellion against neoliberalism was the Latin American “pink tide” movement that followed the Chavista revolution in Venezuela.

These challenged a decade of capitalist triumphalism: the “market knows best” idea had soured as people reacted to the pain and disruption caused by privatisation and deregulation.

The most dramatic expression of this in Australia was the S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum held, shamelessly, in Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Inspired by the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, activists prepared for months for a mass blockade of the three-day summit.

Some 20,000 anti-capitalist activists from across the country blockaded the summit, which was attended by more than 960 corporate chiefs and capitalist politicians. The huge turnout surprised both the ruling elite and the blockade organisers.

The non-violent mass pickets at multiple entrances mostly held their ground despite increasingly violent police attacks.

One of the powerful aspects of the S11 blockade was the involvement of thousands of militant trade unionists, who marched to the blockades from Victorian Trades Hall, led by construction and manufacturing unions.


After S11, commentators speculated about a resurgence of the left, however, they did not factor in a new militant trade union current as part of this.

The rank-and-file Workers First emerged in the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) in the late 1990s, determined to challenge the legal constraints on workers’ solidarity in industrial disputes.

This was one of the consequences of the enterprise bargaining system, imposed by the Labor government in 1993 in the wake of the organised working-class retreat orchestrated through the Prices and Incomes Accord with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

Workers First militants in the AMWU also worked closely with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to build powerful mass pickets with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) when they faced violent attempts to smash them in the 1998 lockouts.

When several socialist groups decided to form SA in 2001, they attracted independent working-class activists and militant trade union activists. These included Craig Johnston from the Victorian AMWU and Christy Cain from the Western Australian MUA.

SA’s development was thus shaped by both the leftward momentum from global and local movements, as well as a new right-wing offensive that began to gain momentum in the second half of 2001.

The John Howard-led Coalition government used special forces troops to board the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, which had rescued 433 desperate asylum seekers from boats off Christmas Island in 2001, playing to deep-seated racism across all classes. The scene was set for a bipartisan racist refugee policy, which has lasted.

This was followed by the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, sold to the public as a necessary response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Globally, governments began introducing increasingly repressive “anti-terrorism” laws, and boosting the number of secret police, their powers and mass surveillance.

These events were eventually used by the ruling class to drive politics to the right. However, that took time as there was a public reaction against the rise of racism and war, including high-school student walkouts against Pauline Hanson in the late 1990s.

Refugee rights

SA dived into campaigns for refugees’ rights and against the war on Afghanistan. There was hope that a section of Labor’s base would jump ship after its leader Kim Beazley’s shameful shoulder-to-shoulder stand with the Coalition on refugees and the war.

However, the Coalition won the November 2001 federal election and much of the anti-war and anti-racist vote went to the Greens, which nearly doubled its share of the popular vote from 2.4% to 4.7%.

Howard’s 2001 win and Labor’s capitulation did not, however, destroy the widespread anti-war sentiment, as shown by the huge marches to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Millions marched around the world and half a million turned out to one of the biggest ever protests in Sydney that February.

But after this historic mobilisation failed to stop the invasion in March, political demoralisation grew.

SA’s early years had revealed more common ground and, at its national conference in 2003, it decided by a 75% majority vote to progress towards a “united, multi-tendency socialist party”. Some of the affiliated left groups opposed this and kept arguing strongly against it over the next few years.

Anti-union laws challenged

Following the Coalition’s election win in 2004, SA’s next major focus was to assist a trade union fightback against the Howard government’s proposed  "WorkChoices" anti-union laws.

A national Trade Union Fightback Conference, an initiative of militant union leaders in SA, was held in the Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne on June 11, 2005. It attracted about 300 union militants and brought together a range of trade union leaders from across the country who had the weight to challenge the ACTU’s don’t-mobilise-advertise approach to WorkChoices.

The ABC Radio National’s AM reported that, while the ACTU was planning “a multi-million dollar advertising campaign”, the Fightback conference was called to “fight, to resist and to maintain union organisation" in an environment that "is going to be a very challenging situation”, as then CFMEU Victorian Secretary Martin Kingham had put it.

The ABC quoted Cain, then newly elected as WA secretary of the MUA, and noted that “hardline unionist Craig Johnston will also address today’s conference”.

Johnston had just been released from jail after serving eight months for his role in militant industrial action. He told the Fightback conference that a new “mass workers' party” was needed to stand up to the bosses’ attacks.

The conference successfully kicked off mass union resistance. As Graham Matthews reported in Green Left: “On June 30, 2005, 10,000 workers mobilised in Geelong against Work Choices, closing down the city.

“On November 15, that number grew to around 30,000, and a meeting of Geelong union delegates on March 1 unanimously called on the ACTU to organise national strike action the day Work Choices was enacted.”

As unions in the rest of Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania followed this lead, the ACTU was eventually forced to start organising a series of union mass mobilisations later that year in the start of the Your Rights At Work campaign.

While supporting the ACTU’s campaign against WorkChoices, newly elected Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden, and a member of SA, told GL that it was too narrowly focused on getting Labor re-elected in 2007. It did and the ALP government delivered the Fair Work Australia law, which has been accurately described as “Work Choices Lite”.

Councillors elected 

As the class struggle was dampened, sectarian divisions within SA began to grow.

The Democratic Socialist Perspective, the biggest affiliate, was divided by an increasingly toxic factional struggle. In 2007, the International Socialist Organisation left SA, followed by other small affiliates.

These divisions weakened SA, taking attention away from building on the precious links it had developed with the militant trade union current, which itself began to be hit by demoralisation. Cain kept his leadership of the WA MUA, but decided to try and restore trade union control over the WA Labor Party.

Over the next few years, SA started to make some modest election gains at the local government level. In October 2009, Sam Wainwright was elected to the Fremantle City Council in WA and, in October 2012, Sue Bolton was elected to Moreland City Council in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Both have been re-elected to their positions and both have set a good example of how to work with, and empower, local communities.

SA gained a third local government representative last year when former independent Queensland MP for Cairns and now a Cairns Regional Councillor Rob Pyne joined.

SA continues to support Green Left, the only weekly left-wing publication in Australia, and continues to promote independent mass action and left regroupment.

It participated in two unsuccessful left regroupment attempts with Socialist Alternative.

The class struggle has its ebbs and flows, but the contradictions in the capitalist system will inevitably throw new forces into political action.

There are no guarantees of success in any left regroupment attempt. However, if the left is not to remain isolated in sects, the challenge remains to link up with broader forces in a struggle for system change.

[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive. He played a central role in the founding of SA.]

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